When Aunt Jessie Came for the Summer

The old Brookfield schoolhouse, now a private residence. Photo by Jessamyn West.

How a New Jersey botanist who loved horses brought new life to a Vermont village, as remembered by her great-niece

Brookfield in 1840 was a bustling town. There were seventeen mills at that time powered by the water from the outlet of Colt's pond. The town had a large hotel, a boardinghouse, a barbershop, and three stores. In the center of the village there was a factory for making forks for the farm. I have heard a story about a village resident that worked in that building for forty years. It was said that his shoes had worn grooves in the floor. I spent five years working in that building when it was a restaurant. I never saw those grooves, but I think that I left some of my own.

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Continuing down the stream was a sawmill and a creamery where milk was collected. The cream was separated, and the cream was sent by rail to be sold in Boston; the milk was returned to the farmer to be fed to the calves and pigs. The butterfat of Jersey cows was higher than any other breed, and that was why the Jersey cows were so prized in Vermont.

A very necessary business was a blacksmith shop for shoeing the horses and repairing wagons. Brookfield had several businesses in town that made chairs. Dropping down the stream, there was another sawmill, a grist mill for making flour, a cider press, a tannery, and a grinding mill that ground bones to mix in with plaster for finishing the inside of houses. At the bottom of the stream was a pipe organ factory. Colt's pond also was a major source of business. Every winter, when the ice got twenty or so inches thick, it was cut into blocks, and the blocks were moved to the icehouse. There they were packed in sawdust and then shipped by rail to the Boston markets. This was a big winter industry until the 1940s.

Brookfield had only the ice-cutting business remaining when my family moved here from Lyndonville, Vermont, in 1939. Harold and Clarice Gage, two-year-old Deborah and I came to live in the Fiske house and manage a summer resort for my Great Aunt Jessie. She was the first woman professor of botany at the new Douglas College, which was the woman's division of Rutgers. Miss Fisk was also head of the seed lab for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture for thirty years. She researched the care of the best kinds of grasses for golf courses. She also worked with the New Jersey State Police on the weed marijuana. Jessie also ran a riding school, which allowed her to pursue her ardent love for horses. In the summer of 1932 Jessie brought her horses and four students to her mother's house in Brookfield. The students were all named Mary and became known as the four Marys. The plan was to spend the mornings riding horseback and studying the local weeds. In the afternoons a swim in the pond was just what the Marys needed. Jessie and the students were fed at Ella Benham's, which was the next house up at the beginning of Ralph Road. This house is now the residence of Ed Koren, who is well known as a longtime cartoonist for the 
New Yorker magazine. His long-haired depictions of native Vermonters are highly recognizable and dearly loved.

The summer was so successful that Jessie started Green Trails. It soon became apparent that Jessie needed someone to manage the operation when she was in New Brunswick. My father, Harold Gage, was Jessie's nephew, the son of Jessie's sister Olive. He seemed to fill her needs for a manager. So the Gages moved to Brookfield. My father bought land at the south end of the village to stable his dairy cows, and a new era had begun.

This was not the bustling town of 100 years before. With the invention of steam engines for power and electrification of the rural areas, which came to this village in 1937, the water flow was no longer the most efficient way to create power. Vermont was still stuggling to recover from the Depression. People had moved away to find better jobs, and most of the old mills were no longer in evidence except for old stone foundations. Part of the creamery was still standing. The Woodman Hall was lying partly in the brook. The photography shop was gone. The Fork Shop had been bought by Jessie and converted to a restaurant where she fed her guests. The Davis country store and the post office supplied the town's mail and other immediate needs. At mail delivery time, roughly 4:30 p.m., the old people of the village would come in and sit around the old wood stove. Oh, the stories that they would tell while they waited for the stage to bring the mail from Randolph, and then waited for the mail to be sorted by the postmistress, Bernice Davis. Bernice was also a pillar of the church. She played the organ and was the town authority on the correct way to do anything, or so it seemed to an eight-year-old. Perley Davis was an old-time character. He was fat, jolly, opinionated, and an authority on any village business or history. Perley would not stock any product that he himself did not like, so some things, like molasses, had to be bought out of town.

The village school was located on a slight hill just beyond the Fork Shop and bordering the pond. It was built in 1946 as an elementary school on the first floor and a two-year high school on the second level. Jessie graduated from that school in 1910. She then went on to Randolph for the last two years of high school. This was the school where I registered in the third grade in 1939. The high school had been closed in 1920, due to financial problems and not enough Brookfield students to warrant it. The upper floor had been ruled unsafe and we were not allowed up there. Sometime a cable had been installed from the floor to the ceiling for extra support. That cable was a great thing to twirl around. I will let you in on a secret. When the schoolhouse was remodeled in 1970, that cable was built into a partition and is not visible, but when the wind blows, and the house moves, it makes a moaning sound, or sometimes it sounds like someone is walking around. The rumor is that my mother, who loved the schoolhouse dearly and even died upstairs, haunts the house, probably. I told my children and now my grandchildren that if it is haunted it is by a kindly old grandma who is just checking to see how the family is behaving.

Dorcas Wright is working on a portrayal—part history, part personal memoir—of life in the village of Brookfield. Now in her eighties, she still lives in the former schoolhouse. 


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